It is a December graduation, indoors, and for the rain not too many people are around. The ceremony at North Carolina State University's Nelson Auditorium lasts a couple of speeches and then we line up on stage. I follow through the motions and afterwards stand on a wet lawn with degree in hand and pats from professors imprinted on my shoulder. I look at the diploma, check the spelling.
Twelve months later, it looks like this:
At New Delhi Railway Station, I script the letters upon a half-sheet of newsprint, a railway station form. We request our tickets for the three day trip into Rajasthan. My aunt stands beside me. Chingoo, six years old, is vying for attention, is bored and yawns and plays with other people's bags. The counter attendant tells me the time and number for tomorrow's Chetak Express. I reply I understand and ask, "from which platform?" Words run together in my head and I can't believe I'm speaking Hindi. Tomorrow we will leave. For my first trip to India.
Granted, I had left America before. I knew myself to be a wanderer. Even now I sense the sound of train wheels as I pad one year through the land of the rising sun. I remember raindrop walks in the summertime in Ghana. I know how it feels, I write carefully in the corners of sketchbook-journals, to be the unsung stranger.
And yet in India I am only a half-stranger.
Juxtaposed in the land of my parents' origin is my American accent, baffling those who assume from my name and features I am theirs.
From the ticket stand we cut down a flight of stairs, moving like fish through water, two big and one small Chingoo. All around are children with musty clothes, shoesmiths, sooted tools, a dank air catching dust and biscuit crumbs. A face flashes, elderly, with a tough cobra skin. A young hand brushes my arm, searching for the jewelry that I never wear. Everywhere there is the smell of sweat.
The next day in the ladies compartment the news is broken. It will be a twenty-hour journey.
I find a dated magazine in my bag and read it twice.
I listen to one tape on my walkman, set for "continuous play."
We order chai when the chai-wala brings it around in his kettle. He passes it out in plastic cups.
"So tell me, why did you come to India? And why all alone? And what would you like to see?" My aunt is the owner of a Lonely Planet guide.
I was thirteen when my mother's younger sister left to rekindle her home here. Ten years later, I see her truly for the first time. Her dark eyes are like those of all the women in our family. Large, they easily betray the slightest trembling in her soul.
"I just felt like I had to come here, that's all. To see India."
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